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Disability Theology: Should we be using terms like 'cripple' as metaphors?

I’ve noticed recently how many people speak in absolute terms. People are no longer ‘a bit upset’, they’re ‘devastated’. Hungry is now ‘starving’ and a worrying event is now ‘deeply disturbing’. It’s a tabloid reporting device that is now commonplace. They are words that give no wiggle room for debate. They are absolute in their meaning.

The Bible uses similar devices to make an emphatic point, but recently some of these devices have been called into question. Those who know their way around the Bible will know it contains phrases that use a named disability to emphasise a point. One example is 2 Peter 1:9 which refers to being blind and not seeing our sins (The amplified bible adds “Spiritually blind” at this point to clarify the meaning). Another example is Proverbs 28:9 “If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable.”

My main thinking has been around those with disabilities entering church for the first time. How would they view this language? Could it be hurtful to just throw it around? Should we add the same qualification the amplified Bible gives?

Ableist language?

To many, this is deemed ‘ableist’ language. To others it’s just what the Bible says. You may think this is a debate between those with a disability and those who love their Bibles. It’s not.

There are people with disabilities who don’t see the problem, and non-disabled theologians who think it’s time to change the language. I have heard it said it’s just down to the so called “Evangelicals” who won't change because they “worship the Bible”. There are people on both sides of the debate from all denominations and theologies - it’s just that most people keep quiet on what they think. In reality, most have never seen this as a possible issue.

I’ve talked to a lot of people (including  pastors) and preachers. One has a hearing impairment and said “maybe we get too precious about ‘our’ words, as though people with disabilities have an absolute right to decide what anyone else is allowed to say.”

A theologian with no disability said that we are at a point in theological thought where we should be able to drop “these words”. Let’s look at both views. I’ll start with those who don’t see the issue in the same way.

Or literary devices?

As I said, the bible often uses various literary devices to emphasise a point. Using the literal meaning of “blind” or “deaf” gives a powerful short shock to make a point. To say “You can’t see your sins” could be seen as quite lightweight. A sort of “oops, I missed that”. Using the word blind or deaf gives emphasis with no wriggle room for debate. It’s absolute.

Because this phraseology is in the Bible, it does mean preachers and teachers will use similar disability metaphors in their sermons and talks (and tweets) for the same reason. I know some have used ‘crippled’ in the same way, as in; “this can cripple your faith”.

For those who are blind and deaf, it can feel as though Christians are using their disability as a negative, and never as a positive. There are passages in the Bible where instructions are given on how to be fair to those who are deaf and blind, but these are rarely preached on. However, disability metaphors for sin and rebellion towards God are common place.

When you look at my last blog on inclusive language, it is easy to see how this may feel like yet another put down in a world that is not kind with its disability language. I’ve grown up with these phrases, and only recently picked up on the fact that some find them painful. Yes I am a wheelchair user and have a visual impairment, but I’ve just seen them as literary devices that pack a punch. But, I’ve been brought up in church and the Bible is precious to me.

Seeing the debate has made me think more. I’m not going to say where I sit in this thinking, as that is not my mandate. I merely want to raise the question.

My main thinking has been around those with disabilities entering church for the first time. How would they view this language? Could it be hurtful to just throw it around? Should we add the same qualification the amplified Bible gives?

I’ll give the last word to Joni Earekson-Tada, she said this many years ago on one of her trips to the UK: “The blind can see with the eyes of Christ. The deaf can hear with the ears of Christ. Those with intellectual disabilities can think with the mind of Christ.”

She’s right, and it’s a good thing to remember.

Read part 1 here: Disability language: does it really matter?

 

Written by Kay Morgan-Gurr

Chair of Children Matter, Co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. Blog: “Pondering Platypus”  kaymorgangurr.com

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